'Arcane, redundant, out of date' State voting laws: Task force has right idea -- computerized ballots, centralized system.

January 15, 1996

STATE LAWMAKERS AND Gov. Parris Glendening ought to heed the advice of a task force on Maryland's voting laws in the wake of the 1994 election controversies. It's time for a complete overhaul.

"There's just too much in the election laws that is arcane and redundant and out of date, and in many instances inapplicable," noted task force chairman George Beall.

Sadly, the General Assembly does not seem in a hurry. At most, legislators are talking about correcting a few flaws exposed in the 1994 Sauerbrey-Glendening race. Obtaining an absentee ballot would be simpler. Demanding a general-election recount would be easier. City Republicans would be able to recruit independents as poll judges. All these steps should help, but they do not address the fundamentals.

Voting needs to be a uniform process throughout Maryland. All ** the procedures and rules should be applied uniformly in every city and county. That's not the case now. Maryland has a decentralized system with a weak state election board. Consequently, subdivisions often differ on how they handle balloting.

Most important is for the General Assembly to endorse a strong, centralized state elections board. That board, not local panels, should handle voter registration rolls. This would increase efficiency and make it difficult for voters to cast ballots in two jurisdictions. Permitting 24 different voting fiefdoms makes no sense.

It also makes no sense to have subdivisions use different voting equipment. You can wait hours to learn the results in Baltimore City or Baltimore County; but not in Harford County or Carroll County. Why? Because Harford and Carroll have computerized ballots. In a high-tech era, there's no excuse for remaining in the Stone Age of manual voting machines.

The switch to an all-computer, statewide voting system will be costly but worth it. Establishing uniform, centralized operations for balloting would not be expensive but would impinge on sensitive local political turf.

Yet the weaknesses exposed in 1994 cannot be ignored. Election law reforms must begin this legislative session. At the least, we expect verbal commitments from the governor and legislative leaders to a true overhaul. Voting is too important to be as cumbersome and as foreboding to citizens as Maryland

has made it.

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